The line between proud American and ugly American is razor thin, a fact of which liberal types like me are acutely aware. At any given moment my Facebook timeline features commentary both from Americans who are ignorant of this reality (“U!S!A! U!S!A! Git ‘er done!”) and from those who sprinted as far from that line as possible, directly into a permanent state of anti-nationalist self-loathing (“America is a disgrace because of [insert social or economic sin here]”). I bounce between the two like a drunkard on a pogo stick, simultaneously proud and embarrassed of my country.
That cognitive dissonance peaks for me every four years during the summer Olympics.
I imagine that citizens of the other 203 nations participating in the 2012 Olympics feel no sheepishness at all whilst cheering for their athletes and waving their flags. Apart from the stray global feel-good story (was anyone really rooting against Cathy Freeman in 2000?), Belgians pull for Belgium, Japanese pull for Japan, Djiboutians root for Djibouti and nobody questions it. But Americans? We root for American athletes, but many of us do so almost apologetically. On one hand, we know how hard our athletes have trained and we see reflections of ourselves, if not in them, then in their anxious, adoring moms or screaming siblings or high-fiving best friends. But on the other hand, how throaty a cheer can you really muster when the USA Men’s Basketball team earns a 110-63 victory over Tunisia in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest?
In many ways, men’s basketball defines the American fan experience. We want to win because we should win, because it would be ludicrous for the best basketball players America can assemble to lose to anyone other than, perhaps, the second-best basketball players America could assemble. We are rightly proud of our strength and consistency in many fields and basketball serves as a proxy for all the things the US does well. But Americans also love underdogs; while we know it would be humiliating for us as a sporting nation we still can’t help but hope, just a little bit, that Tunisia will come out firing threes and manage to pull the greatest upset in the history of upsets. When the US stumbled badly in the 2004 Olympics – starting with a truly inexplicable 19-point loss to Puerto Rico in both teams’ opening game – I turned into Two-Face, half delighted grin and half disgusted grimace.
I was equally torn in 2006 when the US Women’s Ice Hockey team lost to Sweden in a result nobody saw coming. I realize the athletes, coaches, staff and families associated with the American team must have been devastated and I certainly did not wish that on them, but the result was a huge overall boon to women’s hockey, which had been so dominated by the US and Canada that there had been talk of cutting it from the Olympics. Team USA’s bronze medal that year disappointed me as an American and thrilled me as a fan of the game.
That’s the essence of the thing: Your rooting interest as an American is, often as not, at odds with your instincts as a sports fan. I’m seldom moved by hearing the Star-Spangled Banner at medal ceremonies any more; it’s just too common. The United States is beyond dynastic when it comes to the Olympics and sports dynasties are always nine parts greatness and one part villainy. I can so easily see how brutally overpowering the US looks from the outside that I’m sometimes unable to reconcile the knowledge that I’m actually on the inside.
As obnoxious (ugly?) as it might sound, I’m a little envious of the citizens of have-not sporting nations, the ones who party all night in the streets when one of their athletes breaks through for an unexpected silver. Even more, I envy people who belong to the 1-B countries that always finish just behind the US, China and Russia in the medal count. It must be so much fun to be Australian or British or Japanese or Canadian during the Summer Olympics – for there to be just enough suspense to make each gold-medal win exciting and to feel free to celebrate without fear of offending.
I love the Olympics because it’s a gigantic, rich smorgasbord of sports, and I love sports. I also love witnessing true greatness, which is why I openly and enthusiastically cheered for Michael Phelps in every race he swam. That he is my countryman makes me feel a little closer, somehow, to him – he speaks my language with my accent, grew up in the same culture as I did, eats the same food and watches the same television and uses the same products as I do. I wouldn’t be quite as thrilled by his accomplishments if all that weren’t true, but I’d like to think I would still appreciate the level of athletic excellence he achieved.
When an individual dominates like that, it’s greatness; when a nation does, it’s borderline bullying. The US has done nothing wrong here; wrong would be to decline to compete as hard as possible, to refuse to realize such tremendous potential. But I still feel like I’m rooting for the bully, and that leeches a little of the joy out of the Games for me.